The March of the Living (Hebrew: מצעד החיים) is an annual educational program which brings students from around the world to Poland, where they explore the remnants of the Holocaust. On Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah), thousands of participants march silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II. The program was established in 1988 and takes place annually for two weeks around April and May, immediately following Passover. Marchers come from countries as diverse as Estonia, New Zealand, Panama, and Turkey.
Commemoration of World War II death marches
The climax of the program is the March, which is designed to contrast with the death marches which occurred towards the end of World War II. When Nazi Germany withdrew its soldiers from forced-labour camps, inmates – usually already starving and stricken by oppressive work – were forced to march hundreds of miles further west, while those who lagged behind or fell were shot. The March of the Living, in contrast to the death marches, serves to illustrate the continued existence of world Jewry despite Nazi Germany's attempts at their obliteration.
After spending a week in Poland visiting other sites of Nazi Germany's persecution and former sites of Jewish life and culture, many of the participants in the March also travel on to Israel where they observe Yom Hazikaron (Israel's Remembrance Day) and celebrate Yom Haatzmaut (Israel's Independence Day).
The March of the Living is mainly aimed at Jewish high school students and its goals are both universal (fighting indifference, racism and injustice) and particular (opposing anti-semitism, and strengthening their sense of Jewish identity).
A key element of the program is the participation of Holocaust survivors who share the memory of their war-time experiences with the students, while they are still well enough to participate in this challenging two week trip of the young. Though the vast majority of participants in the March of the Living are Jewish high school students from different countries including Israel, there are many non-Jewish groups in attendance, along with adult groups such as the Polish Friends of Israel, Japan's Bridges for Peace and others.
March of the Living Exhibit at the United Nations
In mid January 2014 a new exhibit on the March of the Living opened at the United Nations, scheduled to close at the end of March 2014. Titled "When you Listen to a Witness, You Become a Witness", the exhibit includes photographs, documents and writings devoted to the 25-year history of the March of the Living. The exhibit tells the stories of the aging survivors and their young students who, hand in hand, embark on a life-changing journey and return profoundly transformed. It also contains archival photos of deportation and mass murder from the Holocaust period.
An interactive component of the exhibition allows visitors to fill out their own pledge of tolerance and compassion which may be taken on the March of the Living and planted alongside thousands of other plaques of tolerance and compassion on the very grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The title of the exhibit is taken from the words of Judy Weissenberg Cohen in a speech given to students on the 1997 March of the Living describing the last time she saw her mother during the selection of Hungarian Jewry in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944.
I never had a chance to say goodbye to my mother. We didn’t know we had to say goodbye... I am an old woman today and I never made peace with the fact I never had that last hug and kiss. They say “when you listen to a witness, you become a witness too.” I am only asking you to work for a world... where nobody will ever have to live memories like mine ever again. Please work for Tikkun Olam (Translation: Please heal the world.)— From "The Last Time I Saw my Mother" by Judy Weissenberg Cohen
On March 10, 2014, a group of high school students from Pine Bush High School – part of a district where allegations of widespread anti-Semitism have been reported in the press —visited the UN Exhibit. They were addressed by two Holocaust survivors - Judy Weissenberg Cohen and Fanya Heller - as well as by a WWII Liberator, Rick Carrier.
In recent years the March of the Living (MOTL) has attempted to broaden its focus from only concentrating on the Holocaust, and include other program content in the Poland portion of the trip. These elements include: celebrating Jewish life before the war, establishing dialogue with Polish students, meeting with Polish Righteous among the Nations, and connecting with the contemporary Polish Jewish community.
The March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH) is a program designed for university/college students of all religions and backgrounds. This program, founded in 2001, takes place in May, and in recent years, has included a 2 day trip to Germany, before the 5 day Poland portion of the trip. The purpose of the March of Remembrance and Hope is to teach students of various religious and ethnic backgrounds about the dangers of intolerance through the study of the Holocaust and other World War II genocides, and to promote better relations among people of diverse cultures. Holocaust survivors also participate in the March of Remembrance and Hope program. Since its inception, students of a wide variety of religions and ethnicities have taken part.
Notes and references
- "March of the Living International". http://www.motl.org.
- "March of the Living Canada". http://www.marchoftheliving.org.
- 12 Goals of the March of the Living
- March of the Living Exhibit Opening at the United Nations videos.
- UN Exhibit to Honor March of the Living “When You Listen to a Witness, You Become a Witness” March of the Living Canada 2011-2012.
- March of the Living. CBC Radio: Metro Morning audio recording.
-  New York Times Article on anti-semitism in school district.
-  CBS piece on students meeting Holocaust survivors.
-  TV producer on visiting Auschwitz.
- March of the Living International
- http://www.marchoftheliving.org Canadian organization
- http://www.marchadelavida.com.mx Marcha de la Vida México
- Marcha da Vida - Brasil
- BBC article about the March of Living, 2005
- Comment by Tad Taube in The Forward, May 5, 2006
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